In his book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (2014), historian George Marsden examines the mainstream Protestantism that remained preeminent in American public life during the 1950s. While admiring the “consensus culture” of the so-called “golden years,” Marsden acknowledges the obvious: there’s no going back. The moral collapse of the 1960s and 70s cemented a new era in America, and evangelicals indeed live in this age today. Therefore, instead of suggesting a return to the 1950s, Marsden offers the “principled pluralism” of 19th century Dutch theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper as a suitable paradigm for a 21st century America.
A Donald Trump Presidency accomplishes many things for political conservatism, however a social rubicon has been crossed – in more ways than one. For better or for worse, the 1950s are lost to us irrevocably. The maelstrom of flammable cultural forces we witnessed in 2016 will still demand solutions in 2017, irrespective of the sitting commander-in-chief. Therefore something else is needed besides the usual political tennis match. Wisely bidding farewell to the myth of an “informal Protestant establishment,” Marsden suggests that Americans today should embrace a country with multiple theological (and political) perspectives in the public sphere if we are to stave off the current secularizing and polarizing trend. According to Marsden, “A Kuyperian outlook provides a basis for recognizing that there can be both radical differences in fundamental outlooks and also a basis for social and political cooperation, based on the God-given principle of common grace.” (172)
Is a truly pluralistic America a realistic idea? With the help of Reformed history, Marsden replies yes. And with the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, Marsden’s thesis now deserves a second look from the Christian community if we are to divest our message of Christian love from the current tone of political hegemony. A Republican victory isn’t necessarily a victory for the church; our godly stewardship requires something more than simply going to the polls. Many Democrats woke up on November 9 feeling disappointed and even marginalized. However, those same souls will be back four years from now. And more importantly they will still need Jesus. Unless it helps to create opportunities for Gospel discourse, civil religion can often prove counterproductive. Therefore the next four years are important for the American church.
Due to the loss of a Protestant consensus (something Kuyper himself enjoyed in his native Netherlands), many modern evangelicals believe “confessional pluralism” to be untenable in light of our polarized political and social milieu. However, several Kuyperian themes are already being echoed within evangelicalism. For example, the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission President Russell Moore trumpets, “Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens.” (Onward, 8) “Our end goal is not a Christian America,” Moore writes, “either of the made-up past or the hoped-for future.”
It’s time for the church to clearly define its task against a conservative culture seeking to politicize Christianity. Contrary to the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, the Religious Right has not been vindicated in its quest to turn America into a “Christian nation.” Through the years, scholarly works like The Search for Christian America (Marsden, Noll, Hatch, 1983) have even debunked the Christian Right’s spin on American history. However, our task as a “prophetic minority” is not simply to issue patriotic jeremiads at the sight of every liberal victory. In our quest to deliver the Gospel to a secular world hostile to the things of God, evangelical Christians are encouraged to meet their culture head on, not subdue it politically. In City of God, Augustine contrasts the city of man with the city of God and concludes, “On earth, these two cities are linked and fused together, only to be separated at the Last Judgment.” The following are 5 ways that evangelicals can apply “principled pluralism” to their own social context as they carry out our dual citizenship before the coming of our Lord.
- Christians Should Abandon Their Romanticized Nostalgia for a Realistic America.
Abraham Kuyper believed that there are different “spheres” of human operation, and that each possesses “sphere sovereignty” – whether it be education, church, state, economics, family, etc. These so-called “spheres” are not political but ontological. In other words, creation is structured in such a way that each area of human life is autonomous and requires a balance of powers under the ultimate sovereignty of God. For example, fighting for Christian prayer in public schools is not a realistic option for evangelicals today, unless they’re also willing to join with other religions to contend for faith in general in the education sphere. Are Christians willing to defend religious liberty for themselves as long as that same legislation also defends the Muslim right to worship? If Christians prefer exclusive rights to “religion” in 21st century America, they’ll almost certainly achieve the opposite: privatizing religion to the family and leaving, in the words of Richard Neuhaus, a “naked public square.” America isn’t a “Christian” nation; but it doesn’t have to be a secular one either. By abandoning the Romanticized notion that our country was founded by Christians only, the church can work more effectively to recover a pluralistic spirit where the Gospel can be declared openly without reproach from the state.
- Christian Seminaries Should Be Grounded in History and Apologetics.
In his book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom examines the intellectual crisis of the American education system: “Lack of education simply results in students’ seeking for enlightenment wherever it is readily available, without being able to distinguish between the sublime and trash, insight and propaganda.” Theological education is much the same way, and we witness this decline in countless pulpits where the pastor prepares for sermons on the Internet. A Christian worldview willing to embrace cultural pluralism requires the proper training ground for its leaders. As institutions of theology and pastoral learning, evangelical seminaries are designed to equip Christians both to rightly divide the Word of truth and to deliver/defend that truth in a “post-secular” world. Contemporary theology without an historical backbone begins to mirror the philosophical Zeitgeist of the age. Conversely, an historical theology without an apologetic bent can become abstract and irrelevant. If pastors don’t receive a proper theological education conversant with other modes of thinking, they will either unconsciously absorb a secular ethos or look to shut themselves off from outside voices – both dangerous to the ministry.
In his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962), Richard Hofstadter observes this phenomenon of folk theology: “As popular democracy gained strength and confidence, it reinforced the widespread belief in the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and the well-to-do.” Churches and seminaries must work to disparage this anti-intellectualist bent in so many churches that treat “knowledge” as a pejorative term. Instead pastors must cultivate a spirit of learning that doesn’t shy away from well-formulated arguments. In a pluralistic age, a Gospel-centered church is also an apologetic church.
- Churches Should Take Up Social Causes as Extensions of the Gospel Message
In his famous The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), former Christianity Today editor Carl F.H. Henry indicts the Fundamentalist movement for its cultural retreat: “The average Fundamentalist’s indifference to social implications of his religious message has been so marked…that the non-evangelicals have sometimes classified him with the pessimist in his attitude toward world conditions.” Churches cannot afford to completely insulate themselves from the very people they’re commanded to love. This is, after all, the aim of our charge. (1 Tim. 1:5) “The problem of Fundamentalism,” wrote Henry, “is basically not one of finding a valid message, but rather of giving the redemptive word a proper temporal focus.” In a “principled pluralism,” churches must be willing to engage in social causes in order to reflect the character and love of our Lord and His work on the cross. Evangelicals, for example, should be willing to commend the Roman Catholic Church for its position on abortion and the sanctity of human life, despite our clearly contrasting theologies. Our love of neighbor and our Gospel should never be muddied by our unwillingness to be seen in the public light with other denominations.
Furthermore, issues of poverty and human rights must garner the church’s time and resources, irrespective of race or country. In their book City of Man (2010), Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner contend, “In the Christian view of human rights, human beings stand at the center of concern. This means that the sovereignty of the state is not absolute. The claims of human dignity are universal. Human worth is not determined by nationality, and the responsibility to care for human dignity is not bounded by borders.” (86) Regardless of legislation or party allegiance, the church must speak out to denounce evils like abortion on-demand and social injustice, while also defining biblical liberty against its perversions (e.g. the LGBT movement). Issues like orphan care and adoption cannot be relegated to independent organizations or the state; this is the burden of the church. Unbelievers and believers alike should witness Christian activism if the Gospel message is to find fertile soil.
- Churches Should Utilize Media for the Strengthening of the Christian Worldview
Fifty years ago, the state denominational newspaper was the primary form of communication between evangelicals in a given area. However, a new age demands new forms of information. Evangelicals must find better and more efficient ways of informing the average Christian’s worldview Monday through Saturday. Whether through Al Mohler’s The Briefing or sermon podcasts or the ERLC’s The Weekly newsletter or The Gospel Coalition Twitter page, churches should work not only to preach the Word of God faithfully but to also point their members to Gospel resources that can nurture their souls outside the church building. In a “principled pluralism,” Christians cannot afford to wall themselves off socially from the world, but rather must be informed and engaged in their own country and culture. In his We Cannot Be Silent (2015), Albert Mohler begins the work with a warning: “We are living in the midst of a revolution. The Christian church in the West now faces a set of challenges that exceeds anything it has experienced in the past.” Therefore the church should also look to preach the same old Gospel in very different ways to confront a new moral and sexual movement that challenges basic Christian principles.
- Evangelicals Should Engage Politics With Duty and Caution.
In their book City of Man (2010), Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner consider the question of whether culture is always “upstream” from politics. Citing the social-welfare program and same-sex marriage legislation as examples, the authors conclude that laws actually help “create the moral context for a culture” in many ways. Though not soteriological, statecraft can and does influence “soulcraft.” Therefore evangelicals have a duty to vote and to actually concern themselves with the politics of their state and country. “The long-time cultural separatism of many evangelicals may have been an understandable response to a hostile culture, but it also amounted to an abdication of citizenship.” The God who loves justice also created civil government. (Rom. 13:1-4, Ps. 11:7) Therefore, despite its subordination to the eternal authority of the church, secular authorities still garner the care and concern of our God. Thus they should ours as well. This political tool should be wielded with caution; nonetheless evangelicals have a duty both as citizens and Christians to utilize this God-fashioned instrument for the furthering of His purposes.